by Lana Lynne on October 4, 2012
Most animal lovers, at some point or another, have probably come up against the anti-anthropomorphism argument, most likely when they are sharing some tedious detail from their pet's daily lives with a hyper-rational-minded friend, who refuses to believe that your cat cries for anything other than base survival needs. But, as any animal lover will tell you, not attributing human characteristics to animals is virtually impossible, seems sort of pointless, and makes for a rather empty emotional world.
Thankfully, there have been some changes in animal behavior research that sets aside the taboo on anthropomorphism and looks at animals through a human lens. Take a look at this New Inquiry interview with Laurel Braitman, a science historian doing just that in her work on animal personality and taste. On the subject of the taboo, Braitman says, "Anthropomorism – the ascription of human characteristics to other
animals – has been problematized for a long time, certainly within the
behavioral sciences. I think it’s high time we do away with the taboo.
Some of the people doing the most interesting work about other animal
minds have already done this, because it’s limiting. It’s impossible to
look at them without using a human mind. If we’re trying to understand
the behavior of another animal who is in some ways very similar to us
and we refuse to use our own experience as a place to come from, I think
that’s actually poor science. If we’re looking at a gorilla and that
gorilla is acting sad in some of the same ways that we know ourselves to
act sad, then refusing to acknowledge that link makes us less apt to
understand the gorilla at hand."
One of my favorite parts of the interview is when Braitman talks about the relativity of animal intelligence: "[T]hinking about intelligence as a kind of hierarchy of biological
progression is boring first of all. And intelligence like so many other
things is fairly relative. It’s an interesting thing to look at, but we
can only ever measure intelligence if it’s like human intelligence
because that’s how we understand it." I've often marveled at our ability to define intelligence by our own standards, situate ourselves at the top of the intelligence scale, and then place other expressions or forms of intelligence beneath us, using these same standards. How convenient!
For more with Laurel Braitman, check her out on Ted, and look for her forthcoming book, Animal Madness, which explores mental illness in animals.
In any case, Happy World Animal Day! Make sure you show your love.